Did you know developing and maintaining good habits is an excellent way to help kids achieve goals? Most of us know when behaviors are repeated they have a strong tendency to become automatic—in other words to become habit. But the interesting part is that habits are a link between goals and the actions needed to reach them. An added bonus is that good habits foster independence and positive self-esteem!
What is a Habit?
A habit is a pattern or routine that happens without thinking much about it, it's quite unconscious. Habits occur in every aspect of daily life such as school/work, health, and relationships. For kids this can be everything from brushing their teeth, to doing their homework, to saying thank you.
Attention is made up of both what to focus on and what to ignore. It allows us to select what we attend to. To maintain concentration, we also have to ignore lots of other competing and sometimes more interesting 'stimuli'.
Why Habits Matter
Habits help our kids, and us, not have to use up so many cognitive resources for routine activities. By automating routines, there’s more brain power for the heavy lifting like problem solving, communicating, and being creative. Kids really need this because they have so much to learn. When they establish a good habit, they get to move that behavior to the ‘I CAN DO IT!’ list. Not only do they accomplish a goal, they become more self-sufficient and feel pride in mastering a skill.
Why Habits Matter
Habits are formed through association, practice, and consequences. At first an action or behavior needs planning and focused attention. As those actions are repeated, especially in the same setting, they become efficient and get cued from the surroundings. So if your child starts making his bed each morning when he rises, over time the action of getting out of bed will be a cue to make it up. How long it takes to establish the habit can depend on how consistently and how similarly the behavior is done and on individual differences in your child.
The more positive the consequences your child receives when they carry out a desired behavior, the more likely a good habit will be established. Punishing a child for not carrying out good habits will stir up negative feelings and make them less likely to want to do that behavior long enough or well enough for it to become a good habit.
Strategies to Support Good Habit Formation
Make a list of the good habits you would like your child to have. Frame habits as the goal (the end behavior) and the process (the behaviors that will reach the goal). Next prioritize them. If your kids are old enough, get them involved-this will help with 'buy-in'.
Now you have a roadmap!
Create the Right Environment
A consistent environment with all the 'tools' is key.
If you want your child to hang up their clothes, they need room in their closet, plenty of hangers, a step stool if they can’t reach, and they may benefit from having a written reminder.
If a habit you would like to establish is reading, create a comfortable quiet place, books that are accessible, and good lighting.
Be Consistent and Patient
In the early stages of habit formation, kids need you to monitor that they carry out the behavior consistently. Without this, enough practice doesn’t happen and habits are harder to establish. Just remember to ease out of monitoring as the habit takes hold.
Old habits die hard is a popular saying with a lot of truth in it. If you’re replacing a bad habit with a good one, be prepared for this to take more time.
Many good habits we want from our kids won’t be all that much 'fun'. So when they make the effort to develop the habit, give them a reward like praise or getting to put a star on their goal chart.
Show them how good habits have many benefits. "It's really great you choose your school clothes the night before so we can have time to play with the cat before you go!" is worth its weight in gold.
Kids learn a great deal from watching us as their parents. When you model good habits, you not only show them how and what to do, you get personal benefits as well!
Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2000). Habits as knowledge structures: Automaticity in goal-directed behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 53-63.
Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
About The Author
Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD., is President & Founder of Parent in the Know and uses her training and experience to help parents and educators promote optimal child outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.